My spouse and I took a tour of the Woolworth Building on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August 2016. We booked our tickets online, which is necessary because there is no ticket window, and you cannot walk in and pay on-the-spot. In fact, a sign in front of the building advises “No Tourists Allowed”, and a security officer seriously guards the door.
Several different architectural tours of the building’s magnificent vintage lobby are available:
a 30-minute tour, a 60-minute tour, and a 90-minute tour. We chose the longest tour so that we would have maximum access to the public areas of the building, and the time passed quickly. We were fortunate to tour as part of a small group, just ourselves and two other guests, plus the guide. As directed on the confirmation email, we met our guide outside the front entrance to the building at 233 Broadway (near Park Place). There are no public restroom facilities available; in fact, we tried to use the facilities at the Starbucks in the same block, and we were turned away (which we thought was against Starbucks policy). Tours include stairs and significant time standing. No seating is available, but you may bring your own folding chair if necessary. Questions are welcomed and flash-less still photography is permitted. Children under 10 are not allowed, and food, drinks, and pets are prohibited. Tours are held rain or shine, because they occur primarily inside.
In 1913, Frank W. Woolworth (owner of the five-and-ten cents stores), commissioned architect Cass Gilbert to design the building as his NYC headquarters. (Gilbert also designed other buildings in Lower Manhattan, including the Custom House, Broadway Chambers Building, and West Street Building, as well as the United States Supreme Court in DC). The landmark Woolworth Building remained the tallest skyscraper in the world for the next 17 years. Critics applauded Gilbert’s design because it created a picturesque Gothic silhouette in skyline views. Its commanding central tower featured soaring verticals. The tower’s upper stages, evocative of European cathedrals, contained gables, turrets (tourelles), hook-shaped elements (crockets), and decorative ornaments (finials). At the building’s base, a Tudor Gothic portal opened to a monumental lobby remininscent of a Romanesque cathedral nave. Vaults covered with Byzantine mosaics, gilded cornices, and murals of labor and commerce framing a gracious marble staircase leads to the now-defunct Irving National Bank. The building features an extensive exterior terracotta cladding system.
In its heyday, the building offered its tenants luxurious office space, a shopping arcade, health club (with swimming pool), subway station, and a medieval German Rathskeller, as well as high-speed elevators, self-sustaining electrical power generation, heating, cooling, water supply, and fire protection. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the tower’s pinnacle observatory served as one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. Visitors from around the world enjoyed a thrilling panorama of lower Manhattan and beyond. The Woolworth Building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and a New York City Landmark in 1983. It currently houses both commercial and residential tenants.
During the vibrant economy of the 1920s, Gilbert’s skyscraper Gothic design was viewed at home and abroad as a symbol of American material success. To this day, it evokes the mood of the early 20th century, when New York served as the country’s most prosperous port and gateway for the commerce to the world.
Our tour guide, Lisa Renz, is a preservationist and architectural historian who specializes in 19th and 20th century American architecture. Lisa holds a BA in Architectural History and Theory from Columbia University and an MS in Historic Preservation from Columbia University. She has been researching the Woolworth Building primarily through extensive study of the physical building itself and the archives of Woolworth architect Cass Gilbert through the New York Historical Society. Born and raised in Minneapolis, MN, Lisa has lived in New York City since 2001. She works full-time for a General Contractor as their Historic Preservationist and Project/Site Manager and is currently working on the restoration of Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights.
After you have visited all the major must-see sites in NYC, make time in your itinerary to visit the gorgeous Woolworth Building!